Trail drives made cow towns famous and drovers legendary

Time Before Now, September, 1880The Census Bureau reported the U.S. population had exceeded 50 million, having grown by more than 30 per cent since the previous head count in 1870.  New York was the most populace state, with more than 5 million, Wyoming the smallest with just under 21,000 residents. The Tombstone Epitaph began publishing in the Nevada boom town, just in time to cover the world’s most famous gunfight the next year.   And the March King, John Phillip Sousa, (left) assumed the baton as conductor of the the U.S. Marine Corps Band. 

September 15, 1880   

On this day the Ellis County Star in Hays City, Kansas, reported that an estimated 400,000 Texas longhorns had reached Kansas railheads that year.  It was a high water mark for the trail drives and it made the American cowboy an international icon.  

Hays City, Kansas, 1880

Even as the Star was chronicling the numbers, the bovine Spanish fever virus and the 1874 patent for barbed wire was already spelling the end of the cattle boom.  

The Chisholm Trail, which terminated in the Kansas midriff, was largely responsible for the economic juggernaut.  Ironically, Jesse Chisholm, whose name was indelibly engraved on the Old West trail drives, was a trailblazer but he was never a drover.  Half Cherokee, Chisholm (right) was a trapper, merchant, guide and interpreter.   By the 1840s, he had established a number of trading posts and a trade route across the Cherokee Nation’s undesignated Oklahoma territory.  Before it became part of the trail from Texas, it was a supply line for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Rowdy railhead towns and lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok, tasked with trying to keep order, became legendary.   They actually owed their notoriety to an ambitious young stockman from Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy. (Left)  He’d first feathered his nest shipping a rail car full of mules to Kentucky and quickly grasped the potential for moving livestock by train. 

 In 1867 McCoy selected a tiny cluster of log cabins along the Kansas Pacific Railway as a place to start an empire.   Building his Drovers Cottage and Great Western Stockyards, he relentlessly promoted the location to Texas cattlemen to fill his pens.  By the end of the first season, he’d received 35,000 head of longhorns and created Abilene, the nation’s first and arguably most famous cow town.  During its zenith, Abiline’s rail head shipped more than 3 million longhorns to eastern markets.

Main street of Abilene, Kansas, 1875

As the railroads moved west, however, so did the beef  business.  Down the line, the towns of Newton, Ellsworth and Hays City were the beneficiaries of Abilene’s 1875 ban on Texas cattle when Spanish fever began infecting Kansas milk cows.  Due to years of exposure to the tick-borne virus, the tougher longhorns had developed a natural immunity.

Texas drovers, circa 1879

Dodge City, made famous by dozens of movies and the granddad of TV Western’s,“Gunsmoke,” also became famous over fear of Spanish fever.  In response to pressure from central Kansas homesteaders, the legislature moved the quarantine line farther south. 

Queen of the cow towns, Dodge City, Kansas, 1883

With no place else to go, the herds migrated to Dodge City and by 1883, it was known as the “Queen of the Cow Towns.”  The reign was short, however.  It suffered the same fate as Abilene two short years later when fears of anthrax extended the quarantine line across the entire state. 

By the 1890s the tracks reached all the way to Texas and the era of the big herds crossing the prairie was over.  While the railroads had been exporting beef east, they’d also imported settlers and shopkeepers west.   The drovers’ appropriation of vast amounts of open range was being met with opposition and barbed wire. In addition many small communities had grown increasingly unhappy with the seasonal disruption caused by hundreds of thirsty cowboys.

During a 20-year heyday, however, the  “cowpuncher” reached legendary status.  His signature wide hat, chaps, boots and bandanna coupled with a rugged lifestyle and storied cow town misdeeds gained him both notoriety and admiration. (Above, working cowboys, 1880)

By the time the rail heads forged their way to Texas, the rigors of the trail had been abandoned but not forgotten.  Some of Hollywood’s biggest stars like Randolph Scott and the Duke himself, John Wayne, memorialized the truly American phenomenon.  Decades later, film icon, Clint Eastwood, still managed to get famous portraying drover, Rowdy Yates, (right) for six years on the CBS television drama “Rawhide.” 

Boot Hill Museum,  500 West Wyatt Earp Boulevard, Dodge City, Kansas, features a Front Street and numerous exhibits including the area’s Native Americans, development of the Santa Fe Trail as well as the Queen of the Cattle Town” era.  Made family-friendly, the museum includes a self-guided tour,  reenactments and variety show.  Authentic replica buildings on Front Street (below)  and hundreds of artifacts from the period are interwoven with shops, the Long Branch saloon and  Boot Hill cemetery.

Open year round, hours are 9 to 6, Monday  through Saturday and 1 to 6 on Sunday.  The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  Admission is $15 for adults, $14 for seniors, $11 for children 5 to 12 and $52 for a family pass for two adults and two children under 17.   Admission includes all exhibits, variety show and reenactments.  For more information and variety show schedule, go to, e-mail or call (620) -227-8188.

Old Abilene Town, 100 SE 5th Street, Abilene, Kansas, features a frontier main street, a general store, the Alamo Saloon, hotel and a variety of other buildings of the period.  Grounds are open to visitors seven days a week. 

Reenactments (above) on summer weekends are at noon, 1:30 and 4 on Saturdays as well as Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.  For more information go to or call (785) 571-2298.  *Seven minutes away is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Eisenhower boyhood home.               

*Place a visit to the presidential library on a to do list. It is closed due to Covid-19. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.